When one artist takes another artist’s work and reworks it, it may mean a handful of things. First and foremost, it’s seen as one artist putting their own spin on a song. However, sometimes the ulterior motive is to improve something for the greater good. Whether or not this was in the back of Ryan Adams’ mind when he took on Taylor Swift’s 1989 we don’t know, but what we do know is that he’s taken the whole record and put it through a classic rock infused blender. When Adams announced he would be covering the whole record, people were equal parts shocked and excited. On Monday, Adams finally put out the record, and the results are actually quite surprising. Read on for a full verdict.
Welcome to New York opens the record with swooshing seaside sounds (as pictured on the album cover) and a descending string moment, before pounding drums and classic Americana guitars take the helm. Here, Adams has managed to take Swift’s vibrant album opener and turned it into an inward-looking piece of music which contemplates the city of New York. It sounds less welcoming and exciting than Swift’s instrumental-centric version, rather focussing on turning the lyrics into a near-tangible story. What Adams has managed to do here is inject some actual emotion into the song, something which was almost void on Swift’s version. Not that this comes at a surprise though, especially when you consider the often banal lyrics which appear in mainstream music. The breakdown sees the whole song come together by means of euphoric synths, before Adams’ trademark vocal wails become interspersed throughout. Blank Space goes on to be given a whole new lease of life, with Adams stripping the song right down to its bare bones. Gone are Swift’s electronic flourishes and huge choruses, having been replaced by simplistic acoustic strums and Adams’ recognizable voice. Halfway through there are signs of faint strings, although by this point Adams’ voice has really sucked the listener in. “So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames” sings the mop-haired rocker, his vocals completely entrenched in acoustic beauty. The tone of the record thus far is definitely more demure than the original, although Adams’ rendition of Style is far from this. Pounding guitars and percussion lead into a catchy, guitar-led verse which bears reminiscence to U2 and Bruce Springsteen whilst Adams’ voice takes you on a journey down Route 66. Once again, Adams has managed to take a song by the reins and turn it into a whole story, and this is something he does quite often across 1989. “You’ve got that daydream nation look in your eye” he sings during the chorus, before jangly classic rock guitars accompany his raspy vocals during the second verse. The chorus subsequently returns swiftly, hitting the listener harder than before. It’s definitely the best reworking on the record, and maybe even one of the best things Adams has ever done.
A six-minute version of Out of the Woods follows, with the song having been turned into a lovelorn acoustic ballad. “You took a polaroid of us” claims Adams, his voice sounding lost and depraved of love. At times, Out of the Woods resembles early, disassembled Radiohead at a time when Thom Yorke and co. didn’t quite know what a synthesizer was. Put that through the Adams blender and you have an intriguing end product nothing less than exciting. As the track approaches its halfway point, more instruments enter the frame and the track kicks into full-force power balladry. It’s an absolutely beautiful moment, particularly when Adams asks, “Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear yet?” All You Had to do Was Stay leaves ballad territory, with the intro centring itself on a pulsating rhythmic section and distorted chords. A Bruce Springsteen-esque sheen is added here, and it’s actually quite encapsulating to see Adams do this. Throughout the course of 1989 it’s extremely clear that Adams is taking this whole project very seriously, regardless of how much his plans were mocked upon being revealed. On Swift’s record, Shake it Off was hailed by many as a track which crossed over from the pop world and struck a chord with hipsters and indie groups. However, if the original version of this song was much like Adams’, that probably wouldn’t have been the case. Save for a lone guitar and one drum, Adams is standing completely by himself with none of the extra accompaniment or glitz that surrounded Swift. A hypnotic synthesizer melody joins in roughly halfway through, and it adds an extra sense of depth to proceedings. “Baby, I’m just gonna shake” declares Adams repeatedly throughout, before I Wish You Would carries on bearing similar demure undertones.
Bad Blood, another recent Swift hit, is given a rockier treatment which utilizes simple chords and jangly guitar lines, although it doesn’t bear much of the power which other tracks had. Bad Blood’s chorus is very simple and laid back, although a few off notes courtesy of Adams do hold it back every now and then. “Don’t think it’s in the past, these kinds of wounds always last” he sings during the first verse, with the rest of the track trudging along in similar fashion. Wildest Dream’s five minutes of Americana guitars and Bono-like vocals are very simple, yet this simplicity doesn’t take away from the fact that Adams has really taken the original track apart and turned it into a whole new being. Not a single song on 1989 sounds like the original, with the general chord progressions being all that remained. How You Get the Girl is another demure ballad type, with Ryan singing of not wanting to let go in an upset sounding fashion. It’s become a scene which we’re now accustomed to, simply because it’s what Adams does best. This Love is one of the only songs to be based around a piano, and it’s automatically one of the weakest tracks too. Save for some strings, This Love is simply just a piano song with nothing to show for itself. Penultimate track I Know Places makes use of more intriguing instrumental combinations, something particularly down to the Western-esque guitar jangles and underpinning Cabasa. This gives the song an almost Mariachi-like feel which is completely devoid of everything Swift did originally. Clean brings 1989 to a close, sounding like a simple classic rock track led by acoustic guitars, storytelling lyrics and an unfortunately restrained close. On 1989, Ryan Adams has proven himself to be one of the best musicians of our time in various different ways. It’s one thing taking a song and putting your own spin on it, but it’s a whole other thing to take a complete record and chucking it into a blender filled with classic rock, Americana and influences from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2. Adams’ rendition of Style is by far the best on the record, although the rest of the album doesn’t sit far under this benchmark. Will other artists now start doing similar things? Who knows? Father John Misty had a go, but he swiftly removed his Lou Reed-meets-Ryan Adams covers of Taylor Swift hits because Reed told him to in his sleep. If other artists do decide to do something like this, it’ll have to take a lot of tries and an extremely unique idea to surpass Adams’ impressive reworking of 1989.
Stream 1989 here. You can listen to Style below.